'Castle' Creator: '100 Episodes Is a Miracle'
How Nathan Fillion's geek cred, Stana Katic's eye for a good haircut and passionate fans added up to staying power for the Monday-night stalwart.
This story first appeared in the April 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Castle began on shaky ground. Like many shows developed right before the writers strike, the ABC series -- revolving around the crime-solving duo of mystery novelist Richard Castle, played by Nathan Fillion, and NYPD detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) -- hit a major wall during the 2007-08 lull. Uncertainty put Castle, created by screenwriter Andrew Marlowe (Hollow Man, Air Force One), on the network's shelf. It wasn't until after the strike that it received a second round of support, becoming one of ABC's last pilot orders that year and earning a series greenlight.
As Castle readies for its 100th episode, an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window airing April 1, it continues to build on its DNA: Four tie-in novels have sold more than 1.5 million copies, including a No. 1 best-seller on The New York Times paperback mass-market list and two peaking in the top 10, plus a new book due in May; and in 2012, Marvel, a sibling subsidiary of Disney, along with ABC Studios released a Castle graphic novel. "Castle's DNA with a murder-mystery novelist as the lead character makes it very easy and satisfying to create the novelizations," says Barry Jossen, executive vp studio creative and production at ABC Entertainment Group. "These other pieces of Castle fit comfortably with the TV show and deliver an enhanced experience and extra engagement to fans between viewings. At its best, a TV show becomes a mothership franchise and a product line."
Geek cred from Fillion, 42, having starred in Joss Whedon's cult series Firefly, has led to an enviable social-media presence thanks in part to the actor's nearly 1.7 million Twitter followers. "He brought those Firefly fans with him, and they showed up," credits Marlowe. Although Castle began modestly as a midseason replacement in 2009, it since has stood tall on Mondays (averaging nearly 12 million viewers), often topping time-slot competitors from CBS' Hawaii Five-O to NBC's Deception in the key adults 18-to-49 demographic. "It's 'stability Monday night at 10 o'clock,' " says Jossen, who joins Marlowe, Fillion and Katic in remembering what went into constructing Castle.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did the concept come about?
Andrew Marlowe: One of the reasons I wanted to do something like Castle is that I had grown up a fan of murder mysteries, not police procedurals. The ones on air -- the CSIs and Law & Orders -- approached subjects very darkly. I've always been a fan of shows like Moonlighting and thought taking that [murder mystery concept] and putting it in a [romantic] sparks-fly arena could be a lot of fun. ABC, a female-friendly network, seemed to be the right place -- the Beckett character is a very strong woman -- and Castle represents the different aspects of what it means to be a man: the long-suffering son of his mother, the incredibly kind and supportive dad, the rogue in relationships with women.
Barry Jossen: Andrew pitched it to ABC, who bought it and started developing it. Then came the writers strike. There was a lot of disarray in our industry, and ABC put it into turnaround. So Michael McDonald, who is now our head of drama, says: "Hey, I really like this project: Why don't we buy it back and keep developing it?" What happened next was really interesting: It got developed internally at the studio without network involvement. It was then turned in to the network when they were deciding their pilot orders. It was literally the last pilot order that year.
THR: Once Castle went to pilot, how did the casting process go?
Marlowe: I had been a Nathan Fillion fan for a long time -- loved his work on Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It seemed like the roles he was getting showcased one side of his talent, and I thought this would showcase everything he could do: the dramatic and the comedic.
Nathan Fillion: I was under a deal at ABC. They handed me a stack of scripts, and Castle was at the bottom. I was 15 pages into it, stopped reading and said to my girlfriend, "You tell me if you don't think this would be a lot of fun to do." I had to court some people. Andrew, [executive producer] Armyan Bernstein and a few others came to meet me. I was doing Desperate Housewives at the time. I tried to convince them to stop looking, I talked to them for about 30 minutes: "I'm the guy."
Marlowe: The search for Beckett took longer. We read about 125 actresses. We had phenomenal actresses walk through our door, but for some reason, that inseparable, magical chemistry wasn't there. Nathan hung in there: Right when the 123rd actress walked into the room, you could see his eyes going like pinwheels. But when Stana walked in and they started saying the words, it became more electric. We had our fingers crossed that we had captured lightning in a bottle.
Stana Katic: When you're an actor and you walk into a room, you don't know who everyone is. It's not clear who the writer is, who the producers and the director are, because everyone is invested in making it work well, and it's not clear who the person going to carry the long-haul journey with you is. I remember seeing Andrew for the first time in the audition room. He was off in the back, he had long hair, then he cut his hair really short at the second chemistry read, and I remember saying, "Didn't you have long hair before?" And that was that!
Fillion: It was exciting for me to meet Susan Sullivan [Castle's mother]. I auditioned for Dharma & Greg to play her son and didn't get that role. Here I am, on a different TV show, playing her son.
Jossen: We hired Rob Bowman [The X-Files] to direct, and amazingly, that May, Castle was ordered to series.
THR: But attaining the ratings you needed was an uphill battle.
Marlow: We had a great lead-in with Dancing With the Stars, but it was a two-year process with people discovering us. You're always challenged when you're premiering midseason because your viewing audience has already made decisions about what they're going to watch. But also, there's a virtue to it: The playing field gets shaken out, it becomes clear what holes there are, so we were very lucky to gain traction. At the end of the first season, the running joke was people either loved Castle or never heard of it. So we knew there was a large audience that we hoped to tap into in later seasons. And it's been great -- the off-network cable syndication partnership with TNT is now introducing it to a whole new group of people.
Jossen: When it went on the air, it performed modestly in the ratings and by no means was it a hit. It did well enough to get renewed. But Brian Morewitz [vp drama development at ABC Entertainment] and Channing Dungey [senior vp drama development at ABC] liked the show, affiliate stations were happy to have a strong 10 p.m. show, so one of the things that indicates it's working is when you have strong internal support and the people who actually work at ABC like watching.
Katic: I think it came down to, first off, the one or two individuals who sustained us from the network end; that required a bit of a leap of faith and tenacity and leadership. And the second, and most important thing for this show, has always been its fans. Early on, they created a wonderful grass-roots Internet campaign, the show grew, and now it's got an international following [Castle is licensed in about 220 territories].
THR: Favorite episode?
Katic: Where Captain Montgomery got killed was really powerful, and I loved when Castle and Beckett got together.
Fillion: After doing five years, the things that tend to stick out most are moments that we don't have tons and tons of. So standing over a dead body doesn't top out for me as much as the moments Castle has at home with his mother and daughter that humanize him and humble him. Everywhere else, he seems in control and a brat about things, but when he's at home, he is no longer the master of his destiny. He is under his mother's and daughter's thumb.
THR: And Marlowe, when did you get the idea to do themed episodes, like the Comic-Con episode?
Marlowe: Honestly, part of that is creative and part of that is a business decision. We are in a very challenged television environment, where it's hard to break through the noise. We try to do everything we can to have the idea behind the show be its own promotional entity so that you can grasp what the show is easily. We approach it from the point of view of, "What is the poster of this episode?" It's something that, in my feature background, people talk about all the time. If they're going to spend $100 million or, these days, closer to $150 million or $200 million, people are going to know what this movie's about. Bringing that to the television landscape helped us evolve to where we do have these themed episodes, where we go into a world or subculture that we find fascinating as storytellers and think about what Castle and Beckett will respond to.
THR: What's the secret to Castle's success?
Katic: It appeals to an audience that wants dessert after dinner. It's charming in a classic kind of way. I think people love a bit of heart, humor, drama and stakes, so I suppose it has a nice mix of a lot of different emotions.
Fillion: There are episodes where we do go pretty dramatic, but by and large, we don't take ourselves terribly seriously. We keep it fairly light. I think it makes it easy to like.
Marlowe: People have been responding to this love story between Castle and Beckett, and they are hungry for shows that make them laugh. Whatever bit of magic we happen to capture, hopefully we'll be able to continue. The chances of a pilot getting on air are slim, and to reach 100 episodes is a miracle. That's a result of a lot of people's hard work and also a lot of luck. It is harder and harder for TV shows to reach this milestone in an environment where you have Internet streaming, places like Netflix for shows, 100 channels of programs, cable. It just really gratifies us that we happened to find such a wonderful and loyal audience.